'Show me your papers' politics could suppress black vote

OPINION - The racially charged and xenophobic atmosphere in which many of these efforts are unfolding is undeniable...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The 2012 election cycle is now underway. Beyond the Donald Trump-feuled debate over candidate qualifications during the past few weeks, one need look only at the troubling and seemingly coordinated strategy now unfolding around the country that seeks to erect new barriers aimed at locking voters out of the polls. Through mandatory photo id requirements, proof of citizenship bills and tighter burdens on ex-felons seeking to register to vote, a number of states are seeking to turn the clock by making it more difficult to register to vote or cast a ballot on Election Day.

Collectively, many of these efforts disproportionately burden African-American, Latino and other minority voters, as well as the poor and the threat is one that should concern us all.

The most restrictive photo id requirements require individuals to present government-issued id such as a current driver’s license or passport at the polls. Proof of citizenship requirements lead to the rejection of a voter registration application unless the form is accompanied by a copy of a birth certificate or other document. And, states such as Florida are now seeking to make it even more difficult for ex-felons to restore their voting rights.

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Proponents of these restrictive laws allege that they’re necessary to curb vote fraud but can proffer no real empirical data to support their claims. The evidence makes plain that vote fraud is a myth and few states can put forth examples of individuals impersonating the dead or undocumented persons casting ballots at the polls. The baseless claims of vote fraud serve only to stir up anxieties and spark unnecessary hysteria.

And, the racially charged and xenophobic atmosphere in which many of these efforts are unfolding is undeniable. In a recent legislative hearing, Kansas State Rep. Connie O’Brien claimed that she could tell that a person was illegally in the country because of their “olive complexion.”

In Georgia, during a hearing leading up to the adoption of a restrictive proof of citizenship requirement, State Senator George Hooks, remarked that “we’ve been invaded by people who were born and raised elsewhere. They don’t share our language. They don’t share our culture…. They eat foreign food…. They don’t share the same manners we share.” Both states now have burdensome photo id and proof of citizenship requirements in place.The impact of these laws is clear. In Indiana, which has had a restrictive photo id law in place for the last 5 years, there is no shortage of stories of impacted individuals. Ordinary citizens such as Valerie Williams, an elderly African-American woman who long voted in the lobby of her retirement home, cast a ballot that was not counted during the November 2007 general election, in part because she only possessed an expired driver’s license — no longer valid under the law. And, in 2008, a dozen nuns were turned away at by a fellow sister and poll worker because the women, in their 80s and 90s, did not have acceptable photo id.

In the final analysis, 61 percent of all Americans eligible to vote cast ballots in the November 2008 election — 1 percent more than in the 2004 election. And there were notable increases in turnout and participation rates among many African-American, Latino and other minority voters in many communities.

This latest round of restrictive laws appears squarely aimed at making it more difficult and onerous for these voters to cast ballots in future elections. And, so these efforts underway in a number of states should have us all concerned.

At least 37 states have considered or are now considering photo id or proof of citizenship requirements. In the end, some of these legislative efforts may fail to pick up traction and others may be targeted by litigation to the extent that the evidence establishes their disproportionate burden on the rights of minority voters. Other progressive election reforms including extending early voting periods, lifting restrictions on absentee voting and improving poll worker training may also help change the tide.

What remains abundantly clear is that this upcoming election cycle will sadly be one fraught by dirty tricks and concerted efforts to suppress the vote. Great vigilance and calls for progressive reforms are needed now more than ever to help protect the fragile gains made during the 2008 election cycle and to ensure that the doors of our democracy remain open to all.